This article is the tenth in a series by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK, exploring how a litany of volatile centre/periphery conflicts with deep historical roots were interpreted after 9/11 in the new global paradigm of anti-terrorism – with profound and often violent consequences.
Incorporating in-depth case studies from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Ambassador Ahmed will ultimately argue that the inability for Muslim and non-Muslim states alike to either incorporate minority groups into a liberal and tolerant society or resolve the “centre vs periphery” conflict is emblematic of a systemic failure of the modern state – a breakdown which, more often than not, leads to widespread violence and destruction. The violence generated from these conflicts will become the focus, in the remainder of the 21st century, of all those dealing with issues of national integration, law and order, human rights and justice.
Washington, DC – A blind toddler stumbles through a bleak and barren minefield, blissfully oblivious to the danger around him. A 13-year-old boy screams out directions in a frantic attempt to guide the child out safely. A group of children, many of them orphans, gather around them, paralysed with terror.
This scene is one of the most powerful from the 2004 film Turtles Can Fly, written and directed by the Iranian Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi. The film, set on the eve of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, tells the story of a group of Kurdish children struggling to survive in an Iraqi refugee camp on the Turkish border.
The jarring sequence captures the helplessness of the children, who are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The toddler had wandered into the minefield after being abandoned by his mother, a beautiful and lost young girl, who, following her rape by Iraqi troops who had killed her parents, came to despise her son. Her teenage brother, who is missing both arms, provides for her by defusing landmines with his teeth. She yearns to escape from her squalor but has nowhere to go. Indeed, when a group of children approach the Turkish border, Turkish troops open fire. While her brother and many of the boys had their limbs blown off, her psychological trauma has left scars that are just as deep, if not deeper. She is the only one of the children who is suicidal.
Though a work of fiction, the suffering of children presented in the film is a reality in the Kurdish regions, which constitute the neglected peripheries of four countries. Amid the continuing instability and violence that has dislocated and ripped apart so many families, there are few opportunities for children to become educated or access basic social services. Every government turns a blind eye to the Kurds and we are deaf to their pleas, cries, and anguish. For a proud people who produced some of the greatest rulers and scholars in Muslim history – including Saladin and the mystic Said Nursi – their present voicelessness, poverty and humiliation is a great tragedy.
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The ‘Kurdish problem’
Though some may have believed the “Kurdish problem” has been resolved with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the ruling AK Party’s granting of greater cultural rights under its “Kurdish opening” policy in Turkey, the Kurds continue to face many serious challenges. At the core of the problem has been the perpetual viewing of the entire Kurdish people, including its children, through the paradigm of anti-terrorism, a view that has been given added impetus since 9/11.
In Turkey, where the majority of Kurds live, between one and four million Kurds are internally displaced, driven from their homes during an insurgent war that has resulted in the deaths of 45,000 people during the past three decades. The government forcibly evacuated around 3,500 villages during the conflict, destroying many of them. Today the majority of these Kurds, traditionally farmers and herders, live as an urban underclass with thousands of abandoned children roaming the streets. Despite government programmes designed to facilitate the return of Kurds to their villages, a host of impediments remain, including the presence of around one million landmines in Turkey’s southeastern border areas.
In Syria, hundreds of thousands of Kurds have lived for the past five decades with no citizenship rights, and President Bashar al-Assad’s pledge to change this policy has made little difference amidst the murder and mayhem. Iran, too, has a history of problems integrating its Kurdish periphery, with 10,000 Kurds killed in the two years following the 1979 revolution. Kurds continue to face stiff obstacles to full inclusion in civil society and have experienced alarming rates of capital punishment.
Saddam Hussein’s abominable treatment of the Kurds, which forms the backdrop of the film, is perhaps best known. Under his rule, some 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, and 45,000 of the 75,000 square kilometres of Iraqi Kurdistan were cleared of all Kurds. In 1988 alone, it is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed, thousands of them by chemical weapons.
Surrounded on all sides
The Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, which was made possible by US intervention, certainly led to an improvement in Kurdish fortunes. Administered by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the area has experienced rapid economic development and has implemented a democratic system. Yet simmering tensions between the KRG and the Iraqi central government, in addition to sectarian violence in ethnically mixed areas such as Diyala Province and oil-rich Kirkuk, have led to renewed instability, displacement and fear.
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In recent years, this instability has been exacerbated by Turkish and Iranian military incursions and airstrikes in northern Iraq. Much attention has been given to the Qandil Mountain range, a near-inaccessible area on the Iraqi border with Iran. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing today, Turkish armed forces have staged bombing raids and military campaigns in pursuit of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), who train and operate in the mountains. In 2006, Iran, complaining of attacks by the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), the PKK’s Iranian offshoot, began shelling the Qandil Mountains and carrying out armed incursions. In 2011, Iran launched a large-scale assault in the mountains, coordinated with Turkey, which involved the deployment of 5,000 Revolutionary Guard troops. These operations have forced hundreds of families to abandon their homes.
The extent to which children are affected in the continuing turmoil was demonstrated in December 2011, when 34 Kurds, many of them children as young as twelve years old, were killed in a Turkish airstrike on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, an operation which, according to some Turkish media reports, was assisted by a US predator drone. While Turkey launched its strike believing the youths to be terrorists, they had in fact been smuggling petrol and other goods. The targeted Kurds belonged to the Goyan tribe, which was split in two when the international border was drawn in the 1920s.
Iran has similarly attacked smugglers from economically depressed regions on its borders. An Iranian human rights group recently reported that 70 Kurds transporting goods such as cigarettes, textiles, and electronics on their backs had been shot dead at the border in the past year, while others were killed and injured by landmines.
The prism of suspicion
One can imagine the orphans of Turtles Can Fly, who eke out a meagre existence disarming and selling landmines, engaging in such activities, especially if they had kin across the border. According to the Turkish paper Today’s Zaman, there are only two viable professions in the home village of those killed in the December airstrike: smuggling or joining pro-government tribal militia, known as Village Guards, which number in the tens of thousands and are armed to fight Kurdish “militants”.
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Part of the continuing failure to improve the situation of the Kurds is due to the fact that their respective governments too often see them not as citizens but as potential terrorists. In 2011, Turkey, which the Associated Press reported is responsible for one third of all global terrorism convictions since 9/11, arrested more than 4,000 people on terrorism charges including elected mayors, journalists, academics, fire chiefs and doctors.
Many children are also arrested in these sweeps. Between March 2006 and July 2010, for example, 4,000 children, 95 per cent of them Kurds, were either taken into custody or put in jail under Turkey’s Anti-Terror law, for actions such as joining protests, throwing stones, and attending the funerals of PKK members. There have been reports of intimidation, violence, and sexual abuse against these children in Turkish jails.
Governments with Kurdish peripheries have not linked the continuing turmoil in those areas with their treatment of the next generation of Kurds, which is growing up without hope in a world that has no place for it. Governments need to be providing schools, social services, and vocational training for young Kurds, while creating viable economic opportunities. Organisations need to be created and funded specifically to look after children and make them feel they are part of a caring community.
Yet even this will not result in sustainable improvement, unless the Kurdish population is treated with dignity and is extended full civil and human rights in the nations where they live. This is the demand of the Arab Spring, and with Turkey seen as a role model for emerging Muslim democracies, the world is watching to see how it will incorporate and behave towards its Kurds.
The fact that these governments are Muslim should make them particularly sensitive to the suffering of so many young people. The Prophet of Islam, an orphan himself, taught special compassion for orphans, the impoverished, and the downtrodden of society.
Unless the central governments act with wisdom and prudence in extending to the Kurds their rights, Kurdish anger will remain high and the resulting instability will continue. We must all be consistently be reminded of the struggles of the Kurds and, above all, their children, and not be complicit in their destruction. If the current shameful trajectory continues, this lost Kurdish generation will remain a stain on human society and history.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.